The Untold Story of How Bush is Winning the War on Terror
by Richard Miniter
Part one of an exclusive three-part series of excerpts.
TODAY: U.S. help from Yemen
In the 911 days from September 11, 2001, to March 11, 2004, dozens of al Qaeda plots have been foiled and each of its seven major attacks have cost it entire cells and key commanders. In addition, counter-terrorism operations have killed or captured more than two-thirds of the pre?September 11 al Qaeda leadership.
The terrorists will keep trying to mount attacks on America and its allies—but ongoing counter-intelligence operations will make “success” both difficult and costly. It is harder to sneak up on a nation at war than on one at peace. Cofer Black, the head of CIA counter-terrorism operations on September 11, put it succinctly: “After September 11, the gloves came off.”
The days of the velvet glove are indeed long gone, much to the surprise of some foreign leaders. In a series of private meetings at the White House, President Bush made it clear that he was fighting to win. Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, a small, arid republic on the southwestern edge of the Arabian peninsula, met with Bush in the White House in December 2002. Almost a year and a half had passed since the September 11 attacks. Saleh hoped that Bush had softened. The Yemeni president tried to make him understand that Yemen could not risk being too helpful in the War on Terror and that invading Iraq would be a mistake. Investigative journalist Murray Weiss reported what happened next. Citing an Arab proverb, Saleh said, “If he were to put a cat in a cage, it could likely turn into a fierce lion.”
Bush’s response was stinging. “The cat has rabies and the only way to cure the cat is to cut off its head.”
Saleh got the message. Yemen lifted its objections and allowed a Predator, a small, pilotless plane weighing fewer than nine hundred pounds, to roam its skies hunting for al Qaeda. Within a few months, the Predator focused in on a carload of terrorists speeding down a concrete highway. The Predator fired its missile. The vehicle exploded.
In the burning wreckage, investigators found the DNA of one of the al Qaeda leaders responsible for the attack on the USS Cole, which killed seventeen sailors, injured another forty-four, and, for the first time since World War II, almost cost the U.S. Navy a warship. We may never know what murderous plans were defeated by putting these terrorists on the road to a dusty death, but we can be grateful that their plans were not made manifest.
Meanwhile, U.S. Special Forces have trained a number of elite counter-terrorism troops in Yemen. They have engaged al Qaeda terrorists in firefights across northern Yemen, killing and wounding more than a dozen. It is one small front in a larger global war. The sum of these many small actions is not small.
From the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., to the March 11, 2004, bomb blasts in Madrid, Spain, al Qaeda has been far more active than most realize—and so have the United States and its allies.
There have been many clandestine victories against al Qaeda. More than 3,000 al Qaeda operatives have been seized or slain in 102 countries since September 11, 2001.
Even as firefighters dug out the living and the dead on September 11, President Bush ordered CIA paramilitary teams off to the wastes of Afghanistan. Some began forging ties with the Northern Alliance, the main opposition to the Taliban, and with other warlords. Others began to interrogate the many al Qaeda prisoners the Alliance had been holding for years in its high-altitude camps. Soon valuable real-time intelligence began to flow back to Washington over secure frequency-hopping phones.
These clandestine efforts became the basis for planning the immense airstrikes of October 7, 2001. Within a month, U.S. and allied forces had swept the Taliban from the Afghan capital, Kabul, and had driven them from their stronghold, the city of Kandahar.
In November, a Predator drone found its prey in front of a small rough-stone house south of Kabul: Mohammed Atef, the head of al Qaeda’s military wing. Atef had approved the September 11 strikes on America. Thousands of miles away, at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, an analyst looked at the live black-and-white video feed from the Predator.
The Predator fired a “Hellfire” missile. Atef was killed in the fireball. He was the first major al Qaeda leader to die—and he wouldn’t be the last.
“Some two-thirds of al Qaeda’s key leaders have been captured or killed,” President Bush said in March 2004. “The rest of them hear us breathing down their necks.”
Part II: Bush’s coalition against terror
Richard Miniter is also the author of “Losing Bin Laden: How Bill Clinton’s Failures Unleashed Global Terror.”